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Fracking with the Happy People

How the search for shale gas is exposing cracks in Denmark's showcase democracy

We are used to hearing about multinational corporations manipulating political systems in the global South to eke out ever more profits from often damaging activities. Current examples include that of Enel-Endesa forcing the  El Quimbo megadam onto Colombia by pushing for an increasingly toothless environmental license regime; or Glencore-Xstrata contracting with the Peruvian police to violently repress protesters calling out the pollution linked to the corporation’s Tintaya and Antapaccay mines.

We are less used to stories of corporations deploying similar tactics of cooption and power grabbing in  societies considered the richest and most developed on the planet – such as my country of origin, Denmark. Recurrently praised as home to some of the ‘happiest people in the world’, largely owing to its strong public sector and relative economic equality, this is a country that seems to add substance to the idea of representative democracy as the prime form of modern governance. These past weeks, the country has been captivated in the principal dramatisation of this mythical assertion: the rite of general elections.

“In the age of extreme energy exploration, even Denmark is not immune to corporate interest overriding democratic concerns.”

For many inhabitants of the country’s northernmost region of Vendsyssel, however, the case of French energy giant Total fracking their way through regulations and public oversight in their search for shale gas is causing the plaster saint of Danish democracy to crack. Like Hamlet’s friend Marcellus, listening with disgrace to the aristocracy’s festivities next door, many a Vendelbo — at a safe distance from the political nexus in Copenhagen — is witnessing that “something is rotten in the State of Denmark.”

What would compel Total to pilot a controversial extreme energy operation in a country that takes huge pride in its renewable energy sector and strict environmental laws? Precedents like the ban on nuclear energy, achieved by landmark popular mobilisations in the 1970s and 80s, don’t exactly seem encouraging for the fracking industry. Henrik Nicolaisen, Total’s Project Coordinator for the Danish fracking operation, provides a telling — and chilling — answer: “Denmark [has] strict environmental laws, so if it is possible to establish a profitable project here, it will be possible anywhere.”

The centre stage for Total’s precarious project is a corn field outside the small town of Dybvad. Here the corporation has erected the country’s first ever drilling rig aimed at exploring onshore shale gas deposits. Their exploration permit was granted by a 2010 resolution, passed with broad support in the Parliamentary Energy Commitee. However, most committee members were led to believe that the permit was for conventional fossil fuel extraction — not for gas trapped in shale formations, requiring a highly controversial extraction method never before used onshore in Denmark. Climate Minister at the time, Lykke Friis, notably chose to omit both the terms “fracking” and “shale gas” from her briefing about the license, leaving MPs under the impression that granting the go-ahead should be largely a formality.

This initial governmental breach, however, did not come to light in time to halt the license process. By May 4th 2015 — after a year-long delay caused by daily protests at the fracking site, a Greenpeace occupation of the drilling rig, and the requirement that Total draw up a full Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) — the corporation was able to flick on the engines. But after a mere day and a half of drilling, the Danish Energy Agency turned them off again. It emerged that Total had illegally poured a chemical called Null Foam into the drilling hole which had not been screened, much less cleared, by the EIA as required.

Nonetheless, a few weeks later the drill was spinning again as another state institution, the Nature Agency, sent some very different signals to Total: the corporation was granted permission to use first two, and later nine, additional chemicals in the drilling process – including Null Foam. In a further act of congeniality, the Nature Agency also deemed the chemicals so ‘environmentally harmless’ that no revision to the EIA license was necessary, silencing demands from the mayor of Frederikshavn, Greenpeace and other groups. What caused this sudden slackening of the usually stringent rules? Rather coincidentally, the municipality of Frederikshavn — which houses the fracking site — had just handed their environmental oversight capacity to the Nature Agency, citing excessive workload and “considerable state interests regarding shale gas exploration.” By now a picture of corporate pressure and institutional negligence was clearly forming.

It was the fracking site’s next-door neighbours, Anne-Marie and Karsten Kristensen, that helped me complete this picture. Just down the road they have helped run the make-shift activist camp, Total Protest, for almost a year. “We file complaints [over noise and air pollution] with the municipality almost every day,” says Anne-Marie, ”but they just do nothing at all.” In effect, the group has turned to direct action, including blockades of Total’s trucks and daily protest singing at the fracking site, picket-line style. “We have to turn to civil disobedience to be heard”, says Anne-Marie. But even so, Karsten adds: “everybody knows that the next step will not be to stand in front of a gate singing. That doesn’t reach the media.”

So after songs, complaints, blockades and occupations, what is the next step?

A Freedom of Information request by the Kristensens has turned up e-mail exchanges between Total and the municipality in which the corporation admits that they are unable to keep noise levels from the fracking site below the agreed limits; to which the municipality has simply turned a blind eye. Confronting the State Administration with this and other inflammable information has once again failed to produce any meaningful response.

The strategy now is a legal one. Backed by a highly successful crowdfunding pledge, the Total Protest group is planning to hire lawyers to file a case against the Danish state. The evidence of noncompliance by both Total and the relevant authorities will be used to confront Danish MPs who insist that fracking would only go ahead if carried out in “environmentally responsible” ways. The hope is that such claims will ring so hollow in the face of the evidence that the public mood will shift to sideline Total and see fracking plans shelved.

Pressure on the central administration is mounting not only from citizens: until recently, most municipalities that fall within the concession area had not been duly informed, much less consulted, about potential fracking under their feet. In a recent vote, the city council of Hjørring joined several of its peers in calling on the Minister of Environment not to let fracking go ahead; but they also denounced the lack of consultation by state authorities in a written complaint to the European Commission. That was only weeks after the Danish Energy Agency confirmed in writing to the EU Commission that the public had had “early and effective opportunities to participate in the strategic environmental assessment and the environmental impact assessment processes“ — in other words, an outright lie.

Most everywhere, the push for fracking comes with several myths that are pulled apart as often as they are put forward: 1) the promise of jobs. Except in Vendsyssel, the prospect of a landscape crowded with drilling rigs is seen as a threat to the tourist and agricultural sectors and not a vehicle for new job creation; 2) the bridging-fuel argument. Except in a Danish scenario (as well as in Europe at large), fracked gas will most likely simply add to the already terrifying math of global warming; and 3) the insistent focus on the relatively low CO2 emissions from shale gas, which falls to pieces when counting in the fugitive emissions of methane — estimated at some 4-9% — that make the overall carbon footprint far worse even than coal.

In a country like Denmark, however, Total is able to tap into a much more hard-lived myth: namely that of public institutions being solid enough to secure democratic control over any potentially harmful corporate operations. What is happening in Vendsyssel suggests that such confidence is misplaced. It seems that in the age of extreme energy exploration, even Denmark is not immune to corporate interest overriding democratic concerns.

By revealing how even in countries of largely well-established public control multinational corporations are successfully mobilising strategies to push through their environmentally destructive agenda, this case underscores the omnipotence of corporate power. But as much as fracking is a primary corporate frontier, it is also so obviously skewed towards enriching the few while wreaking havoc on human and environmental health that it is sending many people to the barricades. Karsten Kristensen talks about a potential awakening in Denmark, making reference to the landmark victory against nuclear power in 1985: “a bit of the spirit is starting to come back. I believe this will be just as big.” With the two most openly pro-fracking parties rising to right-wing victory in the recent elections, people may well need to be ready – because remember: if it is possible to establish a profitable project here, it will be possible anywhere.